Audrey Petty's interviews put flesh on city's ghostly high-rises

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A few years ago, when Audrey Petty began interviewing former residents of Chicago's public housing projects and compiling the conversations into an oral history of the Robert Taylor Homes, Cabrini-Green and other notorious (now-razed) high-rises, a woman told Petty, without bitterness, irony or sarcasm, that she had seen people shot to death in her building, she had seen people murdered, "but other than that, it was perfectly lovely." Petty, an associate professor of English and creative writing at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was not prepared for this: She had grown up in relatively prosperous Hyde Park, in a townhouse, and never considered that such pain and malevolence could co-exist with such warm feelings.

As Petty writes in the introduction to "High Rise Stories: Voices from Chicago Public Housing," which was released to great acclaim earlier this year by Dave Eggers' McSweeney's publishing house: When she was a child, these housing projects had become so monolithic and ominous that, even now, though her memory "fits them into my daily vista, I couldn't actually see the Robert Taylor Homes from my doorstep."

Sitting in a South Loop activity space in early December, waiting for her 6-year-old daughter to finish an after-school program, Petty wore red cowboy boots and looked roughly two decades younger than her 46 years. She said she never did set foot in a housing project, but years ago, when she heard that the city was tearing down Cabrini, Taylor, Stateway Gardens and other infamous residences, she decided "these places that had been part of my internal map, that had always felt so separate and visible only though tragic headlines, somebody needed to pull the stories out of those places, get the voices of people who lived there on the record. There had to be more than we knew, and as a Chicagoan, I wanted to be the one who did it."

Three years ago, with the help of her graduate students, she began conducting scores of interviews with former residents, now scattered throughout the city after many housing projects were demolished. Call it local history, urban anthropology or (less charitably) cultural tourism, the results are invaluable: Inspired by the legacy of Studs Terkel and the WPA interview projects of the early 20th century, Petty let her subjects tell their own stories ("I felt only they had the authority, and they knew their buildings, in a way no one else could"), putting flesh on places that, as she writes, "are too often thought about in purely symbolic terms."

You may have seen Cabrini as an imposing reminder of segregation, or regarded the demolition of Rockwell Gardens as a sign of progress, but as Petty shows: People, not ideas, lived in those places, people who put on talent shows and organized bands, threw dinner parties and found comfort in long friendships. That she also hears about gangs, snipers, inhuman conditions and the dead being removed by wheelbarrow only complicates and deepens the picture. "The ambiguity and ambivalence caught me off guard," she said. "I had braced for hard stories, but not the intense affection, even pride, many people felt for those places."

A Pushcart Prize-nominated fiction writer, Petty — who lives with her husband and daughter in a South Shore three-flat they share with one of Petty's sisters and their father — yearns to start a novel. But with "High Rise Stories" in its second printing, and more Chicago public housing stories to tell, fiction may have to wait. Besides, how can fiction compete with 83-year-old Dolores Wilson, who lived in Cabrini for 53 years, telling of her 40-year-old son being killed by a Cabrini sniper, but now, years later, also remembering the great view she once had of sunsets: "Where I am now," she says, "I can't see anything set."

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli

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